Street Photography: Two's productive, three's a crowd
During the past years I’ve had a great deal of experience of street photography, not that I am sure that it has had any beneficial effect. But I have become a dab hand at divining the perfect number that makes up a snap of street photographers. Is it poor old sad me on my ownsome, possibly wearing an off-colour stained raincoat? Or is it a street collective such those from the many MeetUp groups?
I have to tell you that the distillation of my experience and knowledge points to not one but two. Three or more is definitely a crowd.
My first inkling of this came three years ago when I had a nerve-wracking one-to-one in Oxford Street with Eric Kim. I was so nervous that the portrait shot I took of Eric in H&M at Oxford Circus (with the first Leica Monochrom) was so out of focus as to be unusable. I tried to pass it off as “soft” but even I could see it was a lost cause.
But what I did learn was that two photographers working together can get good results. Eric makes a great street photography partner. He only had to smile in that infectious way and the subjects were like putty in our hands, willing to be shunted around and posed to perfection. It was almost like one of those secretly filmed television shows.
We hear a lot about the loner (and many of the great photographers of the past are thought of as loners, although we have no particular reason to believe this) who lurks at the street corner waiting hours for the decisive moment to flit across the lens.
It isn’t like that for me. I like to wander around, go up to people and engage them in conversation. “Can I take your picture” is far too direct and is likely to get the wrong reply. But chat, explain what you are doing, and most people are prepared to be photographed.
All this is easier with two people. Over the past couple of months I’ve been out around Soho and Bloomsbury with Adam Lee who, as you know from his Macfilos articles, is a dyed-in-the-wool film fanatic. I have friends who will not pick up any camera if it isn’t a Leica, almost as thought they will acquire some contagious disease. But Adam is reluctant pick up any camera that doesn’t use film. I’ve tempted him with a fine array of digital wonders (and in fairness he did snap a couple of shots on the PEN-F last week) but all to little avail. He cleaves to his M3 like a drowning sailor to a plank. This is probably what makes him such a good photographer: Dedication of the first order, one camera, one lens. Yeah....
Somehow, though, we spark off one another. Whenever I go shooting with Adam I get better shots and the photo opportunities seem to present themselves in an ordered line. I don’t know why, but it just works out like that. For one thing, the two of us (cheery chappies that we are) must seem less threatening than a lone photographer who could well be up to no good. We are patently up to lots of good and we try to make our targets feel comfortable in turn.
But expand the group to three and it becomes threatening. Rise to a mob (for instance, a photo group) and the whole thing is a charade. That’s why I’ve stopped my MeetUp groups for the time being. I’m enjoying the confidence that comes from doing my own thing.
Find a foil
My advice to lone street photographers would be to find a photographic foil. Try going out with a second snapper and see if it improves your hit rate or the quality of your pictures. I believe it will. I offer my services.
Last Tuesday was one of those totally unpromising days when the heavens opened over London and I was planning to stray no more than a short walk (under an umbrella) from the office. Then Adam called and suggested meeting in Covent Garden to do a few shots. I got on the Piccadilly Line, expecting little more than one of those very interesting chats about photography over a cappuccino and a muffin at Caffe Nero.
It was still drizzling when I emerged from Covent Garden station. Not planning anything serious (when I might have been tempted to take the Leica M-D, my flavour of the month), all I had in my bag was the Olympus PEN-F and 17mm f/1.8 that had just come in for review. In at the deep end for little Oly, as it turned out.
Amidst the raindrops (and after Caffe Nero) Adam and I managed to find some dry spots to grab a few shots. I have to say that within an hour we’d bagged some interesting stuff—all unplanned, unscheduled, unexpected. Adam is still developing his contributions. How 20th Century is that?
This is one of the reasons I always carry a camera, even when I’m not expecting to be doing any serious shooting. It’s why a small, almost pocketable camera such as the new PEN-F is something to toss in the bag just in case.
As it turns out, though, this camera is more than a bag tossee. I was seriously impressed by the pictures that came spilling out of that SD card back at the office. Despite this being a camera completely new to me (I hadn’t even had time to set up any of the multitudinous options) I slapped it in aperture priority mode and fired away. I can look forward to even better stuff as I get familiar with the camera.
Jason Murray had his beady eyes on the PEN-F after sampling the OM-D E-M1 last week but I'm tempted to review this little beauty myself. I might let him have it for a day or two so he can feed me all the technical lowdown. But I like it. My excuse is that it looks like a vintage Leica. Even Adam was impressed.
While, as you know, I’m not a big jpeg person, I was intrigued by the PEN’s front mode dial (which is lifted straight from a 1953 Leica IIIf as far as I can see) and that promising MONO setting. So I dialled it in and thought I would see what it could do. Interesting. The MONO setting performed well but was just a little too soft for my tastes. I’ve now cranked up the parameters and will give it another go later in the week. The thing is, this camera is very customisable.
For street photography, then, it really doesn’t matter what camera you use (except, perhaps, it’s best to avoid DSLRs with big zooms simply to avoid scaring the natives). It doesn’t even have to be a full-framer like a Sony A7 or, even, an APS-C like the Fuji X100T. Micro four thirds is actually well suited because of its fast autofocus, wider depth of field and discreet image.
Purists will say that the Leica M is the only choice for street photography. This is based on some notion that since Cartier-Bresson used Leicas everyone must. And some, even, ignore Leica digitals and insist on Leica film (hello, Adam, are you in?) which, they say, gives the purest experience. This is as maybe. I'm as fond of strutting the streets with an M3, MP or even the new M-D as anyone. I know, because I can bore for England on the subject of zone focus. But I do realise that almost any digital camera can do the job. Even Samon Takagi's Canon G7 X (see Friday's Cuba story) is perfectly capable and is probably the most discreet of the lot.
But whatever camera you use, just get out there (preferably with a companion, camera in hand, so you can do a double-act chat routine) and work the streets. It pays off every time. If you see us around Soho, Covent Garden or Bloomsbury one of these days come over and say hi. You'll recognise us. Adam's the one with the hair. We might even take your picture and make you a star.